[TL;DR “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” version: This Thursday Thought suggests that like a thermostat regulates temperature, the amygdala regulates fear. Fear is a construct of the mind, fed by our experiences, upbringing, genes and more. Because fear is subjective, each of us experiences fear in different ways. This is why one person can be horror-stricken by the sight of a spider while someone else lets the silk spinner crawl on their hand. Corporate change programmes are peppered with fear: the fear of change. Changemakers in organisations should exhibit endless empathy in such scenarios. We must realise that although we are exhilarated at the thought of change, the majority don’t share our enthusiasm. In fact, many colleagues will go to lengths to make sure things stay the same. The status quo never gives us without a fight.]
Thermostats are Feedback Mechanisms
Feedback is a circular process of influence where action has an effect on an actor. A thermostat is an everyday feedback mechanism. It works by monitoring the range of temperature using feedback. The controller within the thermostat is triggered when the temperature drops or rises. A useful way to think of this range is a “spectrum of temperature”, where the range is defined and monitored.
I see fear in a similar way. The amygdala acts as a thermostat of fear for the human mind. . Like a thermostat, our brains contain a controller that triggers fear when we reach certain thresholds. Our controller is called the amygdala and gets its name from the Greek word ἀμυγδαλή, amygdalē, meaning ‘almond’ and we have two of them in our brains. The amygdala performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses including anxiety, aggression and fear.
A Wide Spectrum of Fear
We develop fears and fear tolerance based on a wide range of phenomena from our upbringing to our life experiences to our genes. In fascinating research, Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler determined that fear can pass down through generations. They used a fear conditioning experiment to make mice afraid of the scent of cherry blossoms by shocking them whenever the smell was in the air. They could see how the rodent’s fear centres would light up once they smelled cherry blossom in the air. While that is interesting, Dias and Ressler went one step further. They measured the reaction of the rodents’ offspring when they released the scent of cherry blossom in the air and determined the following generation were also afraid of the scent of cherry blossom.
Wait just one second, so you are telling me, this fear spectrum is not only informed by our current life experiences, but also by those of our ancestors?!? That makes the fear threshold spectrum even more wide-ranging. Could it possibly get any more complicated? Why yes it can. On top of these variations, the size of the amygdala plays a role in our attitude towards fear. Because our brains are lenses through which we experience the world, the structure of those lenses impacts our world views and inform our belief systems. Great, but what the heck has this got to do with change and innovation you might wonder?
“The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”Marcel Proust
Fear is a common ingredient in many failed transformation efforts. Whether it be an individual pursuing a passion or an organisation cultivating change, fear is widespread. Fear of failure, fear of judgement, fear of speaking up, fear of putting your head above the parapet: all fear. The resistance to change is a derivative of fear. What if the reinvention works out bad for me? What if it reshuffles the power structure and I lose the position I have crafted carefully over years? What if I can’t adapt to a digital world? Most change initiatives involve a variety of these symptoms of fear.
Fear hampers so many change initiatives. Those who pursue change experience a wide-ranging level of acceptance or resistance based on people’s comfort with change. Changemakers need to connect with other changemakers in an organisation. You will need each the support of others because you will encounter both passive and active aggression, ostracization, rejection and even sabotage. While it is extremely frustrating to slow down, instead of fighting the status quo, changemakers must understand it. We must approach change with empathy for the legacy organisation.
Through a lens of empathy, we must consider what it must be like for the people around us when we are constantly striving for change.
THANKS FOR READING
How can you help make sure your team doesn’t get stuck in a rut?
How can you encourage people to discover new things, even those that seem to be disconnected from their day jobs?
How can you awaken to opportunities and threats that sneak up on even the most successful of us?
These questions inspired me to create this workshop.
“The Permanent Reinvention” virtual workshop is now available, based on my forthcoming book, “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life.”
It is a workshop that explores the biases and cognitive traps that prevent us from making our best decisions in business and every other aspect of life.
Feedback has been phenomenal and it is fun and transformational for teams in an age of hiring workshops and Zoom fatigue.